Many dietary recommendations include reduction of excessive intake of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) and other energy-rich beverages such as juices and alcohol. The present study examines surveys of both individual dietary intake data and household food expenditure surveys to provide a picture of patterns and trends in beverage intake and purchases in Great Britain from 1986 to 2009, and estimates the potential for pricing policy to promote more healthful beverage purchase patterns. In 2008–9, beverages accounted for 21, 14 and 18 % of daily energy intake for children aged 1·5–18 and 4–18 years, and adults (19–64 years), respectively. Since the 1990s, the most important shifts have been a reduction in consumption of high-fat dairy products and an increased consumption of fruit juices and reduced-fat milk among preschoolers, children and adolescents. Among adults, consumption of high-fat milk beverages, sweetened tea and coffee and other energy-containing drinks fell, but reduced-fat milk, alcohol (particularly beer) and fruit juice rose. In testing taxation as an option for shifting beverage purchase patterns, we calculate that a 10 % increase in the price of SSB could potentially result in a decrease of 7·5 ml/capita per d. A similar 10 % tax on high-fat milk is associated with a reduction of high-fat milk purchases by 5 ml/capita per d and increased reduced-fat milk purchase by 7 ml/capita per d. This analysis implies that taxation or other methods of shifting relative costs of these beverages could be a way to improve beverage choices in Great Britain.